The classic doctrine of justification is roughly that God declares righteous—and will declare righteous at the final judgment—the sinner who has faith in Jesus. There is nothing that we can do to make ourselves right with God—no works of any religious or moral “law”. The righteousness of Jesus may be transferred or “imputed” to us, but even then, it’s never really ours; it remains, in effect, on loan. Justification does not mean that we are right. It means that we have Christ’s rightness. This is how John Calvin defines justification:
Thus we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ…. (Institutes III 11.2)
There you have it—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, which is another way of saying that this is a matter of Reformed theology and not really what Paul was talking about. What our modern Protestant theologies have done is take an argument out of the New Testament story about Israel and the nations and rewrite it as an argument about the salvation of the individual.
So what happens when we put the argument back where it came from?
A preliminary and rather obvious point needs to be made first. Justification does not mean saying that someone is in the right when he or she is not. It means saying that someone is in the right when his or her rightness or righteousness has been challenged or denied in some way. To give a simple example, God tells unrighteous Israel: “learn to do good; seek judgment; rescue the one who is wronged; defend the orphan, and do justice to (dikaiōsate) the widow” (Is. 1:17 LXX). The widow is not in the wrong but she is a victim of injustice. To do justice to her is to give her what is rightfully hers. We have a similar scenario—though the terminology is slightly different—in Jesus’ story of the widow who pesters the unrighteous judge: “Give me justice (ekdikēson) against my adversary” (Lk. 18:3).
Why Israel would not be justified by works of the Law
Justification becomes an issue in the New Testament because an eschatological crisis loomed on the horizon of history. No longer willing to overlook the centuries of pagan ignorance (Acts 17:30), the God of Israel was about to judge the ancient world—just as he had previously judged the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians—and install his Son as ruler of the nations. But in order to judge the pagan world with integrity, God first needed to judge his own people (Rom. 3:5-6, 19), who had failed to set a standard or benchmark of righteousness for the nations. This meant a day of wrath or judgment first against the Jew, then against the Greek.
First century Jews might have expected to be declared righteous on the day of God’s wrath against the pagan world because they had the Mosaic Law, which marked them out as God’s chosen people. Paul’s argument against them, however, is that it is not enough to have the Law, they have to keep the Law; and because they have not kept the Law, the Law now condemns them to destruction. Jews would not, therefore, be justified by their works of the Law on the day of God’s wrath—nor would any Christian who was persuaded to accept circumcision, as Paul makes very clear in Galatians. On the contrary, they would find themselves worse off than many Gentiles who by instinct had fulfilled the requirements of the Law (Rom. 2:27).
So this is where the whole argument about the impossibility of justification by works of the Jewish Law fits in (eg. Gal. 3:7-14). It is not a universal problem. It is specifically the problem faced by first century Israel. If they had kept the commandments, they would have provided the benchmark of righteousness by which God would judge the nations—and they would have been, practically speaking, justified for their religious distinctiveness. They had not kept the commandments, they had brought the name of God into disrepute among the nations (Rom. 2:24), so they suffered the destruction of AD 70.
But if Israel would not be justified—would not be found to be in the right, would not be vindicated—by virtue of possessing the Law when God judged the ancient world, what had become of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit this world (Rom. 4:6)?
The righteousness of God revealed apart from the Jewish Law
This has now become a question of the rightness or righteousness of God. The reputation of Israel’s God was at stake. How would God show himself to be trustworthy, true to his promise? How would God himself be justified?
The answer that Paul gives is that God had provided an alternative basis for the future life of his people apart from the Law of Moses, through the death and resurrection of Jesus:
But now the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the Law… the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Rom. 3:21-22, my translation)
In his death and resurrection Jesus anticipated both the radical remaking of the people of God and the judgment of the pagan world. On the one hand, his death was an act of atonement for Israel’s sins (Rom. 3:24-25), and his resurrection pre-empted the future life of God’s people following judgment (Rom. 6:5-11). On the other hand, his death made possible the inclusion of the nations in this remade people of God (Eph. 2:11-22), and his resurrection was a sign that God had appointed him as the future judge and ruler of the nations (Acts 17:31).
Justification by faith(fulness)
Those who believed all this became the vanguard of the people of God in the age to come after judgment—after the remaking of the people of God, after the overthrow of the whole system of idolatrous imperialism. They were outposts of a new civilization under Israel’s God that was to be realized in the not too distant future.
But the position of these communities was extremely precarious. They had no concrete proof, no socially validated guarantees; they had only the promise of God, only the hope that they would be vindicated for the controversial step that they had taken, a hope undergirded by the experience of the Holy Spirit. They existed and survived by faith.
The “doctrine” of justification in the New Testament, therefore, answers the question, which is really a historical question: Would these outpost communities eventually be found to be in the right? Would they be vindicated? Would they inherit the nations? Would they be rewarded? Would history prove them to have been in the right all along?
There are two sides to this expectation.
The leaders of Israel in Jerusalem and most of diaspora Judaism—to Paul’s great chagrin—believed that they were badly, even blasphemously, mistaken. To the Greek-Roman world their rabid disloyalty to the gods was an atheism that threatened to corrupt and destabilize the empire. So the early Christians found themselves accused by the world of being in the wrong and suffered considerably as a consequence. But the doctrine of justification said that they were right to believe the promise of God—just as Abraham had been right to believe the promise of God—and would eventually, as communities of faith, be vindicated for having held to such a radical, world-changing conviction.
This is not a matter of abstract metaphysics. It has to do with the concrete experience of the early communities of Jews and Greeks who believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Justification by faith meant that sooner or later historical events would demonstrate that they had been right all along to believe in the promise of God and to act on the basis of that promise.
Since, however, there was a real possibility that these communities would fail in their mission of bearing credible witness to the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection through to the parousia, their rightness would be acknowledged not only by the world but also by the Lord. Those communities which had persevered in their trust in the God who raised his Son from the dead, which had worked out their own salvation with fear and trembling, which had walked consistently in the power of the Holy Spirit and not in the ways of the Gentiles, which had done good works, would be judged and rewarded. Those communities which had not done these things would be judged and punished with exclusion from the future of God’s people.
Are we justified in holding to our beliefs when our culture says we are wrong?
I would suggest, then, finally, that for believers today a “doctrine” of justification should address not the purely soteriological question of how we are saved in some absolute forensic and personal sense, but much more practical challenges regarding the identity and purpose of the church: Are we right to hold to our beliefs when secular culture is doing its best to persuade us that we are in the wrong? What sort of faithfulness is required if we are ever to be vindicated, shown to be in the right, for continuing to confess Jesus as Lord from the social and intellectual margins of the western world?